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Synesthesia

Synesthesia, in the words of Dr. Oliver Sacks, "is an immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation." This could be any two sorts of sensation, even smelling mown grass when hearing a certain sound. The most common form of synesthesia is associating specific colors with particular letters and numerals. H is purple! 6 is green!

On our show, we explored the connection between music and color that some people experience. When they hear certain timbres, or intervals, or pitches, or keys, they perceive colors in their mind. We know that these colors are not imaginary because the color areas of the brain color are actually active when these sounds are heard.

We spoke with pianist Joyce Yang who just learned about synesthesia, and suspects she might have it. Composer Michael Torke definitely does — he's known he was a synesthete since he was 5 years old, calling D Major pieces blue. And we brought neurologist Oliver Sacks on the show to help keep our science straight.

You can listen to our show on synesthesia here. On this page, you can find the full interviews with our guests and much more information about synesthesia.

Video

Oliver Sacks talking about the chapter on synesthesia from his latest book Musicophilia



Oliver Sacks says that Disney's Fantasia might be as close as a non-synesthete gets to understanding synesthesia.



Interviews

Listen to or read the full interview with Dr. Oliver Sacks. He spoke with us about the neuroscience of synesthesia, about Vladimir Nabokov's intense letter-color synesthesia, and about whether or not synesthetes are more creative than non-synesthetes.
Oliver Sacks
Read the transcript

Listen to or read the full interview with Michael Torke. He talks about comparing his colors to other synesthetesí, about the real motivation behind composing color music, and about the difficulty of sharing his synesthetic experience with his audiences.
Michael Torke
Read the transcript

Resources

Sean Day's very useful and up-to-date website on synesthesia, with information on many more types of synesthesia than we covered on Performance Today, as well as a great list of synesthete musicians.

Synaesthete.com is an online forum for people with synesthesia to trade experiences, gripe about misconceptions, and share artwork.

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the American Synesthesia Association. Find conferences, the latest research, and information on some synesthesia-inspired visual art.

Read more and share your experiences on the Fredlines blog.




Joyce Yang

Michael Torke

Oliver Sacks


Questions for Michael Torke

Fred Child: I imagine that you've had to come up with the Cocktail Party version of the answer to, 'Oh, Synesthesia, what is that?'

Michael Torke: I started taking piano lessons early just before I turned 5 years old. And I think I started talking about the pieces in terms of color. Oh, that D Major piece, I mean that — see there, I even made the error of mixing up D Major with blue. I meant to say that blue piece. Because to me there was a one to one correspondence between color that I experienced with the piece that I was playing and the music.

I wonder if you could describe your sensory experience. When you hear D Major, how does that blue manifest itself for you?

It's in the mind. It doesn't take any form except as this bright and rich blueness, thatís just, itís hard to describe. It's washing through your brain, but itís not attached to anything. And it's not like a screen. It's just blue. To me, it's kind of the essence of it. It looks blue. It just doesn't have any dimensions I guess. It isn't two dimensional or three dimensional.

Is it only one way or is it two way? If you have that idea of blue, can you conjure up the sound of D major?

No. it's just one way. We live in a visual world, and if I look up to the sky, I donít hear a D Major chord struck on a piano

Can you tell me about some other associations? D major is blue, what about some other keys or pitches?

E major is green. And it's a kind of a spring green, very very warm. E minor gets slightly more blue added to it. But it's not a blue green, just a colder green. G major is yellow. Whereas g minor gets to be kind of a burnt yellow or an ochre. G-sharp which is the third scale degree of E Major, which is green, but if I isolate g-sharp, that becomes this almost kind of pumpkin orange. So G-sharp Major would have that kind of sound. And E mixolydian, which uses the g-sharp of the E major scale, but has the flatted 7th degree, d natural, is in fact the mode the Ecstatic Orange is written in.

You've had a chance in recent years to talk with other synesthetes. Do your colors match.

No. A general rule is that these associations seem to be completely arbitrary. And so, no two musical synesthetes ever agree on anything. And when you hear them talk it sounds like a lot of bunk

Musical sounds trigger this experience for you. Do everyday sounds ever trigger it?

No. Everyday sounds like a glass breaking on the floor is such a complex series of vibrations. If any color would be associated with these sounds it would be grey.

Do you have the sense of it always having been there for you?

Yeah, that it the feeling and the sense that I have. It always was there.

When you're hearing music, and involuntarily having these sensory experiences of color — is it ever overwhelming, do you ever wish it would just go away?

No. It's not like that either. The color thing doesn't take up space in that way, doesnít take up energy. It just is.

Does your synesthetic experience color when you hear music evolve over the course of your life, or is it always the same?

Those colors that I experience don't change. But have noticed that something does change. I'll be in rehearsal, and I'll think it's in d-flat, and then I look down, and I realize that the score says D major. And I'm thinking, I'm a half step off, what's happening, I'm losing my hearing. And hence, if I'm not hearing accurately, I'm experiencing the wrong color!

You raise that issue hearing maybe a slightly different key than you thought you were hearing. The fact is, people play in different tuning systems too. If an early music group plays in D Major. Do you still see blue?

If however the true vibrations are lending more of a d-flat center, then no I wouldn't. And d-flat is a strange kind of silvery-pinky-pinkish kind of color. It's hard to even put words to it. The experience would be completely different.

Silvery-pinky, wow. And if we go up just a tiny bit, does that slide into blue somehow?

Somehow it comes into focus — Djroom! And we're there, you know?

I love music. And yet I don't have that intense experience that you describe, and that in a sense you take for granted.

Well, and what's weird is that that experience for me isn't what I enjoy about music. The intense emotions that I experience with music, and it is my life, I don't just write it, I enjoy it, and it fills my soul, it's the meaning of my life. That color stuff is less than a half of point zero zero zero one percent of what it is that gives my life enrichment from experiencing music.